Interview with Robert Russell, director of Cartoonists Rights Network International
By Tjeerd Royaards
Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) fights to protect the human rights and the personal and creative freedom of editorial cartoonists around the world under threat, arrest, or intimidation because of the power and influence of their professional work. They are the only organization in the world that is dedicated to helping cartoonists in danger because of their work. We talk the director of CRNI, Robert Russell, about the impact of laughter, the value of helping cartoonists and the DIY-cartoons.
Why are editorial cartoons considered so dangerous by some regimes that they have to censor the work or jail the cartoonist (or even execute them)?
The most obvious reason is that the despots hate to be laughed at. Laughter of course is an integral part of what it is to be human. But to a regime that depends on fear, intimidation, lack of information and the submission of their populations, laughter elicited by smart, well-informed cartoons, is extraordinarily alarming. In such a regime, filled with danger, trauma and tension, laughter is a mechanism that relieves such tension as it empowers the person laughing. If you can laugh at your problems, they suddenly seem more manageable. For the ruthless, and let’s face it, the incompetent, who have to rely on censorship and the gun to maintain power, laughter is an especially difficult force to crush.
CRNI is the only organization specifically for helping cartoonist in trouble. Why are you guys the only one?
With my good friend the late Sri Lankan cartoonist Jiffry Yoonoos, I founded the organization exactly because there was no other organization that was exclusively dedicated to the human rights and free speech of editorial cartoonists. Then, as now, editorial cartoonists needed someone looking out for them. And at least back then most human rights organizations didn’t even know what box to put editorial cartoonists in. Are they artists, or, are they journalists? As a result, these cartoon journalists frequently slipped through the cracks, especially since many of them were working as freelancers. Jiffry in fact was one of those victims who slipped through the cracks. I encourage your followers to read Jiffry’s heartbreaking story on our website.
While we remain the only organization exclusively dedicated to the human rights and free speech rights of editorial cartoonists, we have seen a welcome increase in civil society organizations that have become aware of the importance of editorial cartoonists and the threats to these cartoon journalists. Many of these organizations like Reporters Without Borders, Article 19, Freedom House, and others have even opened up editorial cartoon pages on their websites where they keep their readers aware of the censoring of editorial cartoons throughout the world. While we can't toot our own horn too loudly over this as we can't draw direct lines between our 20 years of work, I do feel that we were the pioneers in this area. Jiffry and I understood long ago how much impact on public opinion an editorial cartoon can have and consequently to what terrible extremes tyrants and other thugs will go to in order to silence these cartoonists. Today I am extremely glad to see other nonprofit organizations joining us in tracking the fate of cartoonists who are making political statements about their societies and cultures. I am also very pleased to work closely with some of these same organizations to help endangered cartoonists and their families. Given the exponential increase in attacks to editorial cartoonists since the Danish Cartoon Controversy and the advent of the Internet, and, given the unique challenges to protecting these very high profile opinion makers; there is plenty of important work to do.
CRNI has been actively trying to help cartoonists in trouble for a long time. What have been the developments during that time? Do you feel the profession of cartoonist is getting safer, or have there been a growing number of cartoonists that are in danger because of their work?
There have been a myriad of developments. Each country, and in many cases each province or principality, has its own human rights story. In some countries encouraging strides are being made while in other countries dangerous reversals are being implemented. But in general I would say the profession is getting more dangerous because of the rise of religious extremism and because of the rise of digital technology which facilitates both the spread of free speech and the tools of repression. The impact of the Internet and the other related technological advances is having an impact parallel to the impact of the Gutenberg movable-type. For instance, governments, fundamentalists and terrorists are now mining our personal Facebook pages, websites and blogs to find any evidence whatsoever of what they, in their infinite wisdom, consider disrespectful. In short, we live in an interesting time with lots of change and danger.
What has the impact of CRNI been? What are some of the most memorable moments in the history of CRNI?
We are exceptionally proud of the fact that there is a group of cartoonists in the world who have been deeply empowered and in a few cases whose lives have been saved because of our intervention. Our interventions range from writing letters of protest and giving personal advice, to helping endangered cartoonists find safe haven countries in order for them to avoid jail, beatings or worse.
Very often when journalists escape a deadly future in their own country, they find themselves as refugees in a strange land. The trauma of this experience can easily become too much for them. The common image is that of the journalist who finds himself in a new country suddenly having to drive a taxi to put bread on the table. We are proud to be able to help cartoonists transition through this incredibly traumatic experience and come out the other end as productive as they were when the problems began. Each survivor becomes an incredible asset in his or her new country.
One of our most dramatic rescues was that of Iranian cartoonist, Nik Kowsar. He had been arrested and threatened with death for a cartoon that he drew of a powerful and important mullah. Nik was facing a long jail sentence for merely expressing a political opinion. Based on our advice and leadership he left Iran for safe haven in Canada. The process took five years but eventually Nik was reunited with his wife and daughter and the family is now developing new lives in relative safety. He reestablished himself as a blogger and cartoonist in Canada and is now considered one of the most important sources of information on the Iranian Diaspora. He is also one of our Board Directors.
Each year we also give one cartoonist, or as is the situation this year, two cartoonists our annual Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award. The Courage Award provides a protective spotlight to a cartoonist who has stood up to censorship and repression. It signals to the cartoonist’s repressors that the world is watching.
But what we are most proud of is the impact our work has had on the communities in which our clients struggle for the right to freely express their political views. As deserving of protection as these brave cartoonist are, ultimately our work is not about the free speech rights of cartoonists. Ultimately our work is about the free speech rights of every individual. We chose to focus our efforts on protecting editorial cartoonists because they are always one of the first individuals to be targeted when a society takes a turn towards intolerance. They are without exception the first or second, but never the last to be silenced. Coming to their defense is our way of exposing and hopefully preventing emerging threats to free speech. Let me give just one example. This year one of our Courage Award recipients is Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi. He is being targeted for daring to criticize the prevalence of corruption and government-enforced intolerance. We are extremely proud that the attention we have given Aseem has inspired his fellow countrymen to fight back against India’s rising tide of censorship.
How do you see the future of political cartooning in general?
Tjeerd, that question is perhaps best answered by some young, bright and wired person like yourself. But it seems to me that political cartooning is becoming more and more the arena of the citizen journalist. While anyone can write a blog, it is not yet anyone who can draw complex ideas into simple one-panel humorous, satirical and powerful images. But even this is changing. There are many websites now that enable any citizen journalist with a sense of humor to produce an animated or a still cartoon using stock images taken from an inventory already established on the website – do-it-yourself cartoons, if you will. While this is still in its early stages on the web, web developers and programmers are making cartooning easily available to the general public. Professional, paid cartoonists are still a critical political and economic part of daily and weekly print newspapers and magazines (and probably will be for the foreseeable future). But citizen cartoonists may soon emerge to reveal a new generation of powerful thinkers and humorists.
How has the Internet affected political cartooning, especially for cartoonists in dangerous places?
The anonymity of social media, like Facebook, twitter and all the other social media programs available to the global population is both a blessing and a curse. Like any tool, it depends on the user. It is disturbingly common now for political hacks and enforcers to exploit the online statements by bloggers and Facebook users, conversations we all expect are private messages between friends. More and more we see examples of Facebook users being arrested for things that they are saying to their friends online. While we should all be aware that what we say on Facebook is public, it's not the same as publishing in a newspaper. Now regimes and fundamentalists alike are mining Facebook pages looking for people who are saying anything less than flattering about them.
There's another thing about social media we must keep in mind now. Will Facebook be forced to monetize the information from its Facebook clients in order to generate income for its stockholders? Remember, it's not just the biographical information that we put down on our profiles on Facebook that can be marketed. Rogue regimes might offer Facebook money for them to mine the statements left by others on an individual's Facebook page. People are already in jail because of statements taken from Facebook and blogs. If the information is valuable enough to put someone in jail, it's probably valuable enough to be paid for. Will social network corporations with their vast reserves of raw data be able to resist this temptation?
On the other hand, the Internet is an amazing tool for cartoonists to reach a broader audience and, when in trouble, to get help and rally support. Your platform for cartoonists around the world and your support of our mission is the perfect case in point.
You recently received a grant from the DOEN Foundation. What are you planning to do with this money in 2012?
Yes, we've recently received a grant from the DOEN Foundation in Amsterdam. We are really excited to be working with them. Their grant to us involves two elements. The first is to strengthen our relationships and our services to cartoonists in the Middle East, North Africa region. Coming as this grant did on the cusp of the Arab Spring movement, this grant has become all the more important to us. Political cartoonists and graffiti artists, who we are also seeing as our clients, played a very big role in the communications networks that supported the Arab Spring movement. The second element of our project with the Foundation is the creation of a safety manual for cartoonists. Many free speech and human rights organizations produce safety manuals for human rights workers and journalists in trouble. However, both of these populations don't have exactly the same kind of problems that a local political cartoonist has when under attack. We felt it was necessary to develop the safety manual specifically for the local in-country political cartoonists. We plan this manual to be an important resource for any cartoonist who feels that his or her work in any way might trigger some kind of legal or extralegal attack.
What are the plans of CRNI for beyond 2012?
Cartoonists Rights Network International for most of its 20-year history has been a very small organization. When we started the organization most of our cases involved failing regimes attacking cartoonists through very broadly worded libel laws. Now cartoonists are being attacked from many more quarters. Because of many of the things mentioned in this interview, it is necessary that our organization grows and becomes more established. The threats to free speech are growing. We hope to meet these challenges.